How Did 1900 Asheville Happen?: A Retrospective in Four Parts–1850-1900


“Land of the Sky” Asheville, post-1929. Text on reverse: Situated upon a high mountain table-land 2,300 feet above the sea, and commanding a sweeping panorama of mile-high mountains, Asheville occupies perhaps the most beautiful setting of any city in America. The drifting clouds touching the summits of the mountains and the many days of the sunshine, have given to the Asheville region its distinctive title, “The Land of the Sky.” North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

This post is a Table of Contents guide to what–from time to time over the next while–will become a series of four retrospective posts, each focusing on a topic central to the larger question of how “1900 Asheville” came to be the modern city it was, in such a relatively short time.

These retrospective posts will be interwoven with  previous and ongoing ones on the longer-wave history of Asheville, using three families as a lens: my paternal grandparents Asbury and Ella Whisnant, maternal grandparents Pierce and Pearl Rudisill, and parents John and Mary Neal Whisnant.

The Four Parts:

As items in this list are posted, they will become clickable links, and will be inerlinked with previous relevant posts:

Retrospective I: A Primer on the Sad Truths of Slavery in Asheville, Buncombe County and Western North Carolina

Retrospective II: The Infrastructure Boom–1870-1900

Retrospective III: Railroads, a Tunnel and Convict Labor

Retrospective IV: George Willis Pack: Philanthropist and Progressive Modernizer

Three Mileposts on the Route to Moderization:

At different points or stages in their histories, cities thrive and grow (or don’t, or slide downward) for a variety of reasons, at different rates, with different outcomes.

And so it was with Asheville.  In prior posts, I have briefly attended to several  early growth factors and dynamics, such as greed for land and the perennial influx of people and money to and through Asheville.

When the Civil War ended, says Asheville historian Nan Chase, the town (hardly a city yet) was

Bank Hotel on Court Square, Asheville, ca. 1860

Bank Hotel on Court Square, Asheville, ca. 1860

a back water . . . , a throwback to isolated rusticity and a want of advancement. Visitors . . . encountered a muddy public square crowded with wild hogs and lowing, long-horned oxen pulling wagons. Corn whiskey flowed freely and at night the square was too unsavory for polite company.

Twenty years later, when Christian Reid’s  romantic local color novel named the

Eagle Hotel (before 1900). Pack Memorial Public Library.

Eagle Hotel (before 1900). Pack Memorial Public Library.

town and its surround The Land of the Sky, the novel’s fictional group of lowland visitors found the mountains themselves sublime and  enchanting, but mountaineers–and the town itself (popn. about 1600)–a decidedly mixed bag.  On a carriage ride through the countryside, they see local people who either confirm or deny long-established hillbilly / mountaineer stereotypes.  At dinner at the fashionable Eagle Hotel (more

elegant than the Bank) they are careful to dress, talk and behave in such a way that no one

Boarding Pass for Western North Carolina Railroad, December 21, 1876. NCpedia.

Boarding Pass for Western North Carolina Railroad, December 21, 1876. NCpedia.

will mistake them for locals.  And in any case, the Western North Carolina Railroad was pushing its way toward Hickory Nut Gap.  And when it light finally entered both ends of the 1,800-foot Swannanoa Tunnel in early 1879, trainloads of modernizing elements chugged and smoked their way toward Asheville.

By the time Asbury Whisnant arrived in 1900, the railroad had been there for twenty years, and Asheville had become (as a prior post said) “a node of modernity” with classy hotels, streetcars, telephones, daily newspapers, a large public library and a Grand Opera House, and some 14,000 people.  The hogs and mud were long since gone from Court Square (renamed Pack Square

Pack Square around 1900, with Vance Monument in middle and streetcar tracks in foreground. Pack Memorial Public Library.

Pack Square around 1900, with Vance Monument in middle and streetcar tracks in foreground. Pack Memorial Public Library.

for philanthropist and progressive modernizer George Willis Pack, who arrived in 1884)., and Asheville was on a modernizing roll.

My hope is that these five retrospective posts will help to give further concreteness to the process through which that modernizing roll took form.

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1 Response to How Did 1900 Asheville Happen?: A Retrospective in Four Parts–1850-1900

  1. Kevin White says:

    Interesting boarding pass issued by W. W. Rollins, who was also Asheville’s Postmaster for decades after the Civil War. During the War Rollins had served among the Field & Staff officers of the 29th Regiment of North Carolina Troops, but, he soon deserted, which was most unusual for an officer, who always had the option of resigning his commission. And not only did Rollins desert, he went over to the enemy, and through the last several years of the War served in the North Carolina (Union) units raised in East Tennessee under the leadership of Kirk, who for many years after the War was the bogeyman for mountain children, as his command was notorious in these parts for their raids into western NC. Rollins was rewarded by the Republicans after the War with the Postmastership of Asheville, a job he held for the next thirty-five years, during which time no Ashevillean of socially acceptable Confederate principles would speak to him. Rollins built a house on the north side of Hillside Street at the corner of Mount Clare (then North Street) and called it “Witchwood”. This was adjacent to the old hanging grounds. Today “Witchwood Acres” subdivision is on the grounds. Across the street, on the south side of Hillside, was the home of (former) Confederate Colonel James M. Ray, commander of the 60th NC, a locally raised regiment, during the war. Rollins and Ray were across the street neighbors for more than thirty years, and never exchanged one word.

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